Saturday, August 28, 2010

On a Common Failing in Criticisms

Russell Blackford has an amusing post at his blog in which he lays into Quinn O'Neill for misunderstanding what 'freedom of religion' means and has meant historically, but in the process conveniently overlooks large segments of what it means and has meant historically. Says Blackford:

Freedom of religion is all about - and has always been about - the state not persecuting people on the basis that they fail to adopt the state's preferred religion.

This is certainly one of the things that freedom of religion "has always been about" but it's hardly what it is "all about" and no one who actually took the history of the concept seriously could say it is. To take just one example, it's a standard feature of freedom of religion provisions almost everywhere to provide explicit protection of individuals from religious discrimination, and this is rarely if ever regarded as solely applying to states. One is reminded of the concluding document of the 1986 Vienna convention, whose very first provision on the topic of religious freedom is to insist that states "take effective measures to prevent and eliminate discrimination against individuals or communities on the grounds of religion or belief in the recognition, exercise and enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms in all fields of civil, political, economic, social and cultural life, and to ensure the effective equality between believers and non-believers" -- rather excessive if the point is merely "the state not persecuting people on the basis that they fail to adopt the state's preferred religion"; and even if that weren't so, the very next provision is for states to "foster a climate of mutual tolerance and respect between believers of different communities as well as between believers and non-believers." There is no way to fit such a provision into Blackford's arbitrarily narrow definition of freedom of religion. And, indeed, it is notable that there is plenty for which Blackford cannot account: anti-discrimination provisions, in which religion is one of the protected areas, in housing, employment, and education, where those go beyond restrictions on the state alone.

And this hardly covers the whole of what people have discussed under the subject of freedom of religion; it's just that aspect of it with legal ramifications. But no significant freedom consists merely in legal protections; and, indeed, Blackford's restriction makes nonsense of one of the longstanding commonplaces about freedom of religion for the past several hundred years, namely, that it is a form of freedom of conscience. Now, virtually nobody thinks that freedom of conscience consists merely in protection from state persecution; if nothing else, this would be to confuse the protection with the thing protected. Freedom of conscience as it has often been taken is, as it would have once been put, a right and property from God, i.e., it is something we have prior to and regardless of any obligation pertaining to the state; it has not generally been taken, as Blackford would have to say it has, as simply a restriction on the state, but as something we restrict the power of the state in order to protect -- again, among the other things we do to secure it.

The point here, of course, is not that O'Neill's original argument was particularly stellar, nor that there can't be good-quality objections to it; indeed, I think she does much the same as Blackford, just without looking quite so foolish. Rather, the point is that one should not lambast people for ignorance of the meaning of certain phrases, when you are defending this claim by arbitrarily redefining the phrases involved. Rightly or wrongly, 'freedom of religion' even in the purely legal realm has quite often been regarded as going beyond the restriction of state power to the imposition of rules or procedures of tolerance among citizens. And when we move from the actual legal realm, then obviously more colloquial and expansive meanings will be given to widely recognized phrases; one thinks, as an analogy, of the extraordinarily expansive meaning Canadians typically give to the meaning 'sovereignty', which goes well beyond what its strict meaning has been, historically or in present international jurisprudence. These things may drive one crazy, and, if the confusions that come about from it are serious enough, one may reasonably set out to reform usage; but one should never pretend that this isn't exactly what you are doing, actively trying to reform, which is not a matter of knowledge or ignorance but a matter of the most appropriate means to whatever ends are most appropriate. We find that the problem comes up a great deal with 'freedom of speech'; and no doubt there are people who will argue that 'freedom of speech' should only be restricted to what is protected by restrictions on state power to regulate speech. But when we move to more colloquial ground, the meaning is simply not so narrow. We may be driven crazy by the sloppiness with which the term is used; but it makes no sense to complain that people who are using it in this way are using it ignorantly or confusedly just because they don't confine themselves to questions of state power.

It reminds me of the pedanticism of those people who mock people who use 'literally' as an intensifier for not knowing what the word means. Now, it's entirely reasonable to campaign against this usage as excessively confusing, or sloppy, or ugly, or what have you; but it's simply not reasonable to attack it as wrong, since that exhibits ignorance of the actual history of the term: the intensifier usage is in fact longstanding and is a usage that puts one in good company since a large number of classic authors use it; moreover, the usual meaning that is put in opposition to it, that which opposes 'literally' to 'figuratively', is not the only meaning the phrase has had, nor has it always been the dominant meaning. Nor is it anything but nonsense to regard one's campaign to reform the language as somehow not reforming at all but simply overthrowing all the false pretenders to the throne of meaning, leaving the perpetual and obvious true pretender in its rightful place. The most one is really doing is putting forward a proposal for what one sees as an improved use of language; and this is no rational basis for calling someone else ignorant or confused. They might well be ignorant or confused; difficult as it may be to countenance, that someone uses a term in a more expansive or narrow sense than you do does not show this, unless they are trying precisley to use it in the sense you use it and are failing. And even then it does not guarantee any such thing; it might just be inadvertence or sloppiness rather than real ignorance or confusion.

This can actually be fairly difficult; almost everyone finds usages that simply drive them crazy. And it's sometimes difficult to draw the lines properly; we move so easily from words to things and back again. But one might also say, just as a perhaps, that even if we give in to the urge to vent on these points (and it is possibly only human), one should avoid attacking people for "putting on airs" as if they were experts while telegraphing so obviously at every point that one is, oneself, merely putting on airs as if one were an expert.

UPDATE: Chris Schoen beat me to the punch with regard to Blackford's post.

Friday, August 27, 2010

First in Order

We should note that in every genus the cause is what is first in that genus, by which all the things that belong to that genus are constituted in that genus, such as among the elementary bodies, fire is the first hot thing, from which all things obtain heat. Now, one does not proceed into infinity in any order of things. So in the order of beings something must be first, which gives being to all.

Aquinas, Commentary on the Book of Causes, proposition 18; Guagliardo, tr. (CUA Press, 1996) p. 113. He also goes on (following the author of the Liber de Causis) to argue for the same thing in the order of life and the order of knowledge, thus giving the three grades of nobility: being, living, and knowing. (A very interesting feature of Aquinas's discussion in this context is that living makes the list because it is self-motion, which is the noblest form of tending or mobility; and knowing makes the list because it is purely formal possession, which is the noblest form of having or possession. Being, tending, having.) This gives the explanation for a fact that often puzzles people, i.e., the fact that Aquinas explicitly mentions nobility in the Fourth Way.

The Latin:

Considerandum est quod in unoquoque genere est causa illud quod est primum in genere illo, a quo omnia quae sunt illius generis in illo genere constituuntur, sicut inter elementaria corpora ignis est primum calidum a quo omnia caliditatem sortiuntur; non est autem in aliquo rerum ordine in infinitum procedere. Oportet igitur in ordine entium esse aliquod primum quod dat omnibus esse, et hoc est quod dicit quod res omnes habent essentiam per ens primum.

A Poem Draft

A Week

By Monday I'll have flown away,
the stars will be my home;
the light at night will carry me
through rubor and through gloam.
By Tuesday I'll have sailed away,
the sea will carry me
from age to age, from world to world,
through hope's eternity.
But Wednesday all the world will fade,
this world that I have dreamed,
and I will find the things themselves
in some bright candle-gleam.
By Thursday I will catch the wind
and make the shadows live;
but I am also but a shade
lost in some shadow's rift.
By Friday I will fall asleep
upon death's farther shore
and taste the tears of sorrow's shame
and live my life once more.
By Saturday I will have built
a tomb of thought and stone
and take my supper with the gods,
then break my fast alone.
But Sunday -- ah, what can I say
of Sunday's sunrise red?
Like a door I pass it through
to Monday with the dead.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Vision at Ostia

Tomorrow and the next day are the feast days of St. Monica and St. Augustine. Monica, of course, was Augustine's mother, and given his lifelong devotion to his mother, it's fitting that Monica and Augustine have feast days side by side. And there's nothing that seems to be more appropriate to the concelebration than the vision at Ostia.

The vision at Ostia is described in Augustine's Confessions, Book IX, Chapter 10. 'She', of course, is Monica:

As the day now approached on which she was to depart this life--a day which thou knewest, but which we did not--it happened (though I believe it was by thy secret ways arranged) that she and I stood alone, leaning in a certain window from which the garden of the house we occupied at Ostia could be seen. Here in this place, removed from the crowd, we were resting ourselves for the voyage after the fatigues of a long journey.

We were conversing alone very pleasantly and "forgetting those things which are past, and reaching forward toward those things which are future." We were in the present--and in the presence of Truth (which thou art)--discussing together what is the nature of the eternal life of the saints: which eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither has entered into the heart of man. We opened wide the mouth of our heart, thirsting for those supernal streams of thy fountain, "the fountain of life" which is with thee, that we might be sprinkled with its waters according to our capacity and might in some measure weigh the truth of so profound a mystery.

And when our conversation had brought us to the point where the very highest of physical sense and the most intense illumination of physical light seemed, in comparison with the sweetness of that life to come, not worthy of comparison, nor even of mention, we lifted ourselves with a more ardent love toward the Selfsame [Idipsum], and we gradually passed through all the levels of bodily objects, and even through the heaven itself, where the sun and moon and stars shine on the earth. Indeed, we soared higher yet by an inner musing, speaking and marveling at thy works.

And we came at last to our own minds and went beyond them, that we might climb as high as that region of unfailing plenty where thou feedest Israel forever with the food of truth, where life is that Wisdom by whom all things are made, both which have been and which are to be. Wisdom is not made, but is as she has been and forever shall be; for "to have been" and "to be hereafter" do not apply to her, but only "to be," because she is eternal and "to have been" and "to be hereafter" are not eternal.

And while we were thus speaking and straining after her, we just barely touched her with the whole effort of our hearts. Then with a sigh, leaving the first fruits of the Spirit bound to that ecstasy, we returned to the sounds of our own tongue, where the spoken word had both beginning and end. But what is like to thy Word, our Lord, who remaineth in himself without becoming old, and "makes all things new"?

There are some interesting features to this religious experience. One of the more interesting is that Augustine claims it was a shared experience that arose out of conversation. Augustine and Monica are having an intense and lively conversation about the life of the saints in heaven, looking out at the garden at Ostia. The conversation becomes extraordinarily absorbing as they talk about higher and higher things, reaching up to God, and then, says Augustine, "we just barely touched her [i.e., divine Wisdom] with the whole effort of our hearts". In the conversation, as Augustine relates, both in the very act of conversation had a deeper sense of themselves and, through this, just a bare intimation, a touch or glimpse, of the conversation of heaven itself. Conversation itself becomes a prayer, and conversation as prayer gives a momentum intelligentiae, one moment of understanding, of the heavenly life. The conversation that is itself a prayer is the first taste of heaven.

It's become popular recently to talk about Augustine's background Neoplatonism, but it is difficult to imagine most Neoplatonists, and certainly any pagan Neoplatonists, having an experience like this, despite the emphasis on meditative and inward 'ascents' that most Neoplatonists have. Thomas Williams has an interesting paper on this subject, called "Augustine vs. Plotinus" (PDF). I think some of his claims are a bit strong, but the basic point, I think, is right: this is a thoroughly Christian experience. And it is noteworthy that Augustine talks of it in Trinitarian terms.

And, as Williams notes, one of the marks of this experience is its contrast with the earlier religious experiences at Milan. The 'ascents' at Milan, which more closely conform to Neoplatonist models, occur, as this one does, just prior to a death: the death of Adeodatus, Augustine's beloved son. The experienced provide no comfort. The whole of that scene of Augustine's life ends in greater misery and unhappiness. But this does not happen here; Monica dies just as Adeodatus does, and she is not an unimportant part of Augustine's life. It cannot have been easy, and Augustine is frank about the pain of the parting. But there is no misery, and through the pain there is joy. The religious experiences at Milan were, effectively, experiences for Augustine alone; but in the vision at Ostia, he experiences a tie that goes beyond death. He experiences the conversation of the saints, and because of that, death no longer quite has its sting.

Another interesting thing about it is the name used of God here, Idipsum, or Selfsame. It sounds like something a Neoplatonist would say, doesn't it? But the name comes from the Psalms. Much of Book IX is influenced by Psalm 4; chapter 4 of Book IX is an exegesis of the Psalm.

In pace in idipsum dormiam, et requiescam; quoniam tu, Domine, singulariter in spe constituisti me.

(This is the Vulgate; I'd have to dig up the actual Latin Augustine uses, but it's very similar.) As Augustine says in Chapter 4:

And with a loud cry from my heart, I called out in the following verse, "Oh, in peace!" and "the self-same [Idipsum]!" Oh, what said he, "I will lay me down and sleep!" For who shall hinder us, when "shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory?" And You are in the highest degree "the self-same," who changest not; and in You is the rest which forgets all labour, for there is no other beside You, nor ought we to seek after those many other things which are not what You are; but Thou, Lord, only makest me to dwell in hope.

When Augustine speaks of God as Idipsum, the Selfsame, it is no doubt his Neoplatonist background that leads him to pick up on it as a name of God; but his usage is not Neoplatonist, but follows the usage of the Latin Psalms. In the vision at Ostia, Monica and Augustine have actual experience of that of which the Psalmist speaks, the Idipsum or Selfsame, the sure ground of hope. And Monica learns this lesson well; after the experience, leaning at that window over the garden at Ostia, she turned to her son and said, "What am I doing here any longer?" And so she, as the Psalm says, soon falls asleep in peace, in the Selfsame, in whom is her hope.

Possible to Be and Not Be

For it has been said above that the "possible" is described in terms of something definite - for example, someone's power to run is described in terms of 100 stades. But there exist in external reality some things that can both exist and not exist. Therefore it is necessary according to the foregoing that there be determined some maximum time both affecting existence, such that it is not possible to exist for a greater time, and affecting non-existence, such that it is not possible not to exist for a greater time.

Aquinas, De Caelo, sect. 255

A Rough Attempt at Summarizing the Five Ways

The First Way examines what follows from the fact that actually existing things can be potential in other respects. It concludes that there is some actually existing thing that is not potential in any respect.

The Second Way examines what follows from the fact that actually existing things exist in ways dependent on other actually existing things. It concludes that there is an actually existing thing that exists independently of any other actually existing thing.

The Third Way examines what follows from the fact that actually existing things begin to exist. It concludes that there is an actually existing thing that does not begin to exist.

The Fourth Way examines what follows from the fact that the ways actual things exist can be more and less actual. It concludes that there is an actually existing thing whose way of existing is most actual.

The Fifth Way examines what follows from the fact that actually existing things act as disposed. It concludes that there is an actually existing thing that disposes [and is not disposed].

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Modality and the Third Way II

Re-reading the previous post, I think it probably would be handy to lay down explicitly what possibility, impossibility, and necessity are under this conception. This will be crude, but should give the idea. A thing is possible to be in this sense if for some time everything required for its existence exists, and in that way that makes the thing actual; a thing is possible not to be if for some time not everything required for its existence exists. (There are Aristotelian arguments that these two are coextensive.) A thing is impossible if this is not true at any time that what is required for its existence exists. And a thing is necessary if at every time what is required for its existence exists, and in such a way that the thing actually exists. You'll notice that in every case we are dealing with a modality that depends on what actually exists: to be possible to be and not to be is to be such that sometimes it actually exists and sometimes does not; to be impossible is to be such that it never actually exists; and to be necessary is to be such that it actually always exists. The power/ability/capability here is one involving sufficiency; it is always expressed (the ability to be in being and the ability not to be in not being), and what kind of ability it is depends on how it is expressed.

The Third Way, therefore, is an argument that proceeds from the fact that things are generated and corrupted to the fact that they are generable and corruptible (possible to be and not to be); these are understood not in our weak usual sense of 'could be generated' and 'could be corrupted' but in a stronger sense that's more like 'having at some time the sufficient conditions for existing and having at some time the sufficient conditions for not existing'. But if something is generable and corruptible in this sense, it is logically impossible for it always to exist. If the whole world were generable and corruptible, at one time nothing existed. But nothing is caused to begin to exist except by something existing, so if at one time nothing existed, nothing would ever begin to exist and nothing would exist now. Therefore not all things are generable or corruptible: there must be something ingenerable and incorruptible (necessary). That is, there must be something that does not have to begin to exist and does not ever cease to exist. But anything of this sort would have to be such that either it is ingenerable and incorruptible by nature or it is caused to exist in such a way that it does not begin and end, i.e., it is ingenerable and incorruptible at second-hand. Now, this is basically a question about whether efficient causes can regress infinitely, and Aquinas already dealt with that in the Second Way; the causes are considered from a different angle here, but that's all. So there must be something that by nature is ingenerable and incorruptible, which can cause things that are not ingenerable and incorruptible by nature to be ingenerable and incorruptible through its causal activity. And this is the sort of thing human beings call divine.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Modality and the Third Way

Richard Hennessey has an interesting post on Aquinas's Third Way, in which he discusses the first part of the argument, on 'possibility to be or not be'. The Third Way is tough going, plain and simple: it is the most confusing of the Five Ways; it uses the least intuitive technical terminology; it has manuscript variants on a crucial premise; Thomists have usually only explained it in the vaguest terms; and as for critical studies of it -- if you look at what has been published on the Third Way, you have in hand proof that a veritable ocean of truly awful philosophical papers have been published in the past hundred years. But there are things we can do to clarify matters, and I think when we take them into account we see that Richard has been somewhat misled by the terminology used in the argument, and therefore wandered into the wrong system of modality. It's a common confusion.

The Third Way claims to be about possibility and necessity, and it is, but when we think of possibility and necessity, we tend to think of diamond and box -- i.e., possibility and necessity as usually found in standard modal logics, in which possibility is represented by a diamond or lozenge operator and necessity is represented by a box or square operator. Moreover, we tend to think of it in alethic terms; e.g., when we think of necessity we are not usually thinking of necessity in the sense of 'necessary from the perspective of doing one's duty'. This sense of modality abstracts entirely from questions of time or causal power and is based entirely on considerations of consistency. This sense of modality is not in view here. I have seen it claimed on the basis of passages like the Third Way that Aquinas's view of alethic possibility and necessity implies that if something never exists it is not possible; this is definitely false. Aquinas is quite clear that 'possibility' and 'necessity' are not univocal terms, and one of the senses he recognizes is pretty much our standard alethic notion, based wholly on considerations of consistency. But there is another sense, and it is the one operative here; in this sense something is said to be possible in light of (in the words of the commentary on Aristotle's De Caelo) "what is, or is not, within the power of an agent or patient." We know that this has to be the sense here because it is the sense of possibility that is used in Aristotelian accounts of generation and corruption, and the Third Way explicitly appeals to generation and corruption.

We use our senses to interact with the world, and we reflect on what we learn in this way; when we do we recognize that some things are generated and corrupted. That is, they begin to exist and they cease to exist. This shows that they are capable of being and not being. But this capability is not an abstract sort of capability; we do not learn merely that their beginning and ending is not internally inconsistent. Rather, we learn that things have a power for being and not being; or, in other words, they have an actual ability to exist for a duration. Prior to their beginning to exist they have no actual ability to exist for a duration because they don't exist, and therefore there is nothing to possess this ability. After they cease to exist, there is also nothing to possess this actual ability. Therefore things don't have the actual ability to exist for a duration outside the limits of that duration. Therefore, from studying generation and corruption in the world we learn not merely that things can be and can not be; we learn that there are things that by their own nature and circumstances have the ability-to-be-and-not-be.

Now, if something genuinely has the ability-to-be-or-not-be in this sense, there must be some time at which it exists and some time at which it doesn't. If there is no time at which it exists, it only has the ability not to be, and this means that it is not possible in the relevant sense. If there is no time at which it does not exist, it only has the ability to be, and this means that it also is not possible in the relevant sense. Therefore when Aquinas says, "what is possible not to be at some time is not," he is not saying something strange or controversial; it is necessarily true on the conception of possibility that is being used in the Third Way.

It's also clear here that it's not quite true to say, as Richard does, that "Aquinas has here, that is, identified modal 'logic' with temporal 'logic.'" There would be nothing wrong with this in general, because any temporal logic is in fact simply a modal logic in which possibility and necessity are given temporal rather than alethic interpretations. But it's not quite what's happening here. He is not conflating alethic and temporal modalities. He is appealing to a modality; but it is, we might say, a causal modality with a temporal component, one that has actual use in discussion of generation and corruption (Aristotle uses it extensively in the treatise On the Heavens). Because of this, it isn't an ad hoc modality; an Aristotelian has a principled account of why it is needed: it is presupposed by certain kinds of explanations of certain kinds of natural phenomena. And because of this the entire part of the argument that Richard discusses in his post is actually unexceptionable. I never know what Richard means by 'evidently sound' since 'evidently' is a psychological term and what is 'evident' will obviously vary from person to person; I doubt Aquinas himself would think (or care) that any of the Five Ways are 'evidently sound' if it means that they would be evidently sound to everybody. Certainly there is nothing about the Third Way that will be 'evident' to most people. But the part that Richard discusses in his post is the part of the argument in which Aquinas merely (1) points out that a certain kind of modality is used in explaining generation and corruption; and (2) establishes what follows from this modality by definition.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Jottings on Grade Inflation

Fortyquestions asked a college president about grade inflation and got the following reply:

The weakening of undergraduate education was not due to a thousand cuts, nor just one cause. To me, there were several (for private universities)

1. Faculty cowardice - (among some) Many faculty just do not want to argue with students about grades.

2. The quest for good teaching evaluations. I would guess that the correlation between high grades awarded and enthusiastic teacher evaluations is quite high almost everywhere.

3. Political correctness and the mania to support "self-esteem" of students.

4. Precipitous decline of honor codes almost everywhere, so that cheating is rampant.

5. The spread of "spinus dissaperanus," a viral disease that robs university leaders of whatever spine they had before becoming leaders.

6. Governing board failures, due partly to the fact that prospective board members eagerly seek the social status that comes with university board membership.

7. Growing lack of diversity in faculty philosophical views.

And many more.

What rather strikes me is how all the specific active failures listed here are pinned on faculty, while the failures of administration are given only the vaguest mention. But, then, I'm faculty, and would say that. Just like I would say with regard to (5) that precisely one of the failures of modern academia is that college presidents think of themselves as 'leaders' rather than as what they in fact are: chief coordinating facilitators for the work of education, which, it must be pointed out, is a cooperative venture carried out in actual fact mostly by faculty and students, with large assists from a fairly stable and easily identifiable group of staff -- librarians, tech support, secretaries, and the like. Very large parts of this cooperative venture are sustained by students and teachers and librarians doing things that they could perfectly well do, and would gladly do, and would often do well, even if there were no such things as college presidents. College presidents who think of themselves as leaders inevitably do stupid things, with only a tiny handful of exceptions; what a college needs is a president who has the sense to recognize that his job is to be an administrator, which can involve some leading but is often a different thing entirely.

Nonetheless I'm not sure what ground there is for some of these. I know of no teachers who are particularly worried about their student evaluations: it is in fact very difficult to do very poorly on student evaluations because (1) students are often nice, and do often like their teachers regardless of whether they like the course, and don't want to get them into trouble; amd (2) students have no clue how to evaluate most of the things they are asked to evaluate, and so tend to give noncommittal answers. And while there are, I am sure, worriers who fret over evaluations constantly, this seems to be widely recognized. I worry about my student evaluations for no more than fractions of an hour a year: the fractions of an hour spent handing them out and the fractions of an hour spent reading them. I do occasionally learn something worthwhile that affects how I adapt the course for the next term, but it is simply implausible to imagine any significant number of professors so overwrought about student evaluations that they grade with a view to them. I know too many freakish academics ever to claim that there aren't any, but it's just not likely that this is a significant factor.

'Faculty cowardice' is more plausible, but, again, it's difficult to see how it could have any large-scale effect. Just speaking on the basis of faculty I know, two far more plausible causes would be (1) the fact that teachers tend to have sympathies toward their students; and (2) the fact that teachers tend to hate grading. The combination of these seems to me to be far more likely to have an effect. Regardless, it's a relatively easy fix: separate teaching and evaluation. If we consider evaluation alone, it makes very little sense for me to be grading my own students. For one thing, it really amounts to my grading my own (perceived) effectiveness. And, for another, it largely diverts good teachers into tedious tasks -- it takes up a great deal of time that would in most cases be better spent in direct consultation with students. There are disadvantages to such a system arising in areas other evaluation, but it's noteworthy that this one move would wipe out half the supposed causes on the above list.

In the end, I think grade inflation is a myth, not because there isn't anything wrong with grading systems today (there is, but it's a different set of problems), but because claims of grade inflation buy into the idea that grades are supposed to be univocal measures of merit. They are not, they have never been, and it is not possible to make them so. They will necessarily vary from institution to institution, from instructor to instructor, and often even from course to course with one instructor. When you see an A on a transcript, you don't know what they did to get it; you don't know how it compares to what people five hundred miles away did to get an A, or even how it compares to what other people are getting in the same course or at the same institution; you often don't know the ins and outs of the college's grading policy; you don't know the aims built into the courses that led to the assignments and grading being done the way they were in that course. There are steps that can be and have been taken to reduce the confusion this causes, but they are limited in effect. What most people call grade inflation is not grade inflation at all; it is simply grade confusion, ten thousand competing grading philosophies, many of them quite reasonable, whose differences are simply ignored by arbitrary assignation of letters. I sometimes find it interesting that people don't think about the immediate implication of the claim that grades are univocal measures of merit that should not become more common: for this to be the case, it has to be impossible for teaching to be improved. If teachers can improve, we should expect high grades to become more common as teachers refine and improve their teaching skills, not stay the same, because as teachers improved more of their students would meet the standards (up to a certain saturation point). Common views of the nature of grading are shot through and through with obvious falsehoods and confusions.

And, in any case, if there were grade inflation, it would not itself be a major problem -- there are things, like the structure of the curriculum and program requirements, that can offset it. The real thing to worry about is credential inflation, which arises not from evaluation inflation but from economics, and, while it slows down on the upswing and speeds up on the downswing, it occurs regardless of whether evaluation standards are being raised or lowered.

First Flow'ret of the Wild

Saint Rose of Lima
by Harriet Skidmore

Thou hast rare and regal dower,
O fair Peruvian land !
A boundless wealth of fruit and flower,
From Nature's partial hand ;
And thine is one transcendent gem—
One pure and peerless rose,
The fairest crown of mortal stem,
In thee its dwelling chose,—
Rare daughter of a radiant clime,
Bright blossom of the West,
Glad starbeam of our gloomy time,
Queen Rose of Lima blest.
Columbia's saint! her very own !
The New World's favored child !
Our gem, enshrined beside the throne,
"First flow'ret of the wild."
O wondrous life ! O matchless bloom,
From heaven's glory caught!
O ceaseless tribute of perfume,
With pure aroma fraught!
The worship of a stainless heart,
A fair, embellished shrine,
Grace-guarded, kept from earth apart,
Fit home of love divine !
Meet votary of Sharon's Rose !
To thee, pure flower, was given
Sweet semblance of each charm that glows
In that bright Queen of Heaven.
A love unsullied bade thee bow
At Mary's holy shrine,
And on her statue's shining brow
Thy garden's gifts entwine.
Loved Rose of Lima! while we bend
Before our Lady's throne,
To our frail, fading tributes lend
The grace that decked thy own.
For lifted heart and humble head
Win blessings from above,
And o'er our scentless off'rings shed
The fragrance of thy love ;
And so, each fair, immortal flower,
Transplanted from the sod,
Shall bloom, with thee, in fadeless bower,
The garden of our God.

Today is the feast day of St. Rose of Lima, the first person in the Americas to be canonized. She died in 1617. She is always interesting. It is difficult to imagine a saint whose life was deliberately more antithetical to what in the modern-day West has widely become regarded as the good life, but she is nonetheless a very popular saint, and the patroness of Latin America, Peru, embroiderers, and people ridiculed for their piety, among other things. She is best known for her extraordinary mortifications, but much of the devotion to her is based on the extraordinary amount of charity and work for the poor, much of which was made possible by her mortifications, which made it possible to devote far greater time and resources to prayer and to helping others.

According to Henrietta Dumont's The Language of Flowers, the proper flower for the observance of the feast day of St. Rose of Lima is the Guernsey Lily; the scientific name she gives is Amaryllis sarniensis but I'm thinking that 'Amaryllis' here indicates the tribe or family, and that the genus and species are actually Nerine sarniensis.

The Wind in Turret and Tree

The Sisters
by Alfred Tennyson

We were two daughters of one race;
She was the fairest in the face.
The wind is blowing in turret and tree.
They were together, and she fell;
Therefore revenge became me well.
O, the earl was fair to see!

She died; she went to burning flame;
She mix’d her ancient blood with shame.
The wind is howling in turret and tree.
Whole weeks and months, and early and late,
To win his love I lay in wait.
O, the earl was fair to see!

I made a feast; I bade him come;
I won his love, I brought him home,
The wind is roaring in turret and tree.
And after supper on a bed,
Upon my lap he laid his head.
O, the earl was fair to see!

I kiss’d his eyelids into rest,
His ruddy cheeks upon my breast.
The wind is raging in turret and tree.
I hated him with the hate of hell,
But I loved his beauty passing well.
O, the earl was fair to see!

I rose up in the silent night;
I made my dagger sharp and bright.
The wind is raving in turret and tree.
As half-asleep his breath he drew,
Three time I stabb’d him thro’ and thro’.
O, the earl was fair to see!

I curl’d and comb’d his comely head,
He looked so grand when he was dead.
The wind is blowing in turret and tree.
I wrapt his body in the sheet,
And laid him at his mother’s feet.
O, the earl was fair to see!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Unity of Indivisibility

Then, according to what appears from the words set down here, the author introduces another proof to show that an intelligence is not a body, because its substance as well as its activity is indivisible, and each has the unity of indivisibility, which cannot be in bodies. For a body is divided in its substance by the division of magnitude and is divided in its activity by the division of time, neither of which is proper to an intelligence. But Proclus presents this in his book to prove another point, i.e., to show that an intelligence is not divided according to motion, for he says the following: "Furthermore, the identity of its activity with its substance shows that an intellect is eternal." There is force to this proof because that thing whose activity comes to it accidentally receives variation according to that activity, so that sometimes it acts and sometimes it does not act, or soemtimes it acts more and sometimes it acts less. But the thing whose activity belongs to it according to its essence acts without variation. Such is an intelligence, to which an intellectual activity belongs according ot the nature of its essence.

Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Book of Causes, Guagliardo, tr. (CUA Press, 1996) pp. 58-59.

One of the things I've recently been doing (off and on around other projects) is tracing some of the history of what Kant calls the Achilles of rationalist arguments on the soul. There's a family of arguments along the lines laid down by these two examples, arguing from the simplicity of the soul to its distinction from body, its immortality, etc. While Aquinas would have no problem with saying that the soul is simple in some sense (he wouldn't think it the strict and proper sense but a relative or comparative sense), he does not typically make or express approval of such arguments, as he does here. But, of course, he isn't talking about souls here, either, but pure intelligences. Precisely what rationalism does is speak of the soul as if it were a pure intelligence -- the old charge against Descartes and company that they confuse human beings with a sort of minimal angel.